Every year, somewhere in the wide open plains of the Nevada desert a spot of land comes to life as tens of thousands of people gather together in a spot called Black Rock which gains the status of a city for a specific amount of time. During the time the burning man festival is held, the population goes up from non-existent (zero) to more than 70 thousand. Most people believe that the Burning Man festival has something to do with music, or maybe drugs? Well, even though all those amenities maybe present at the festival in their most hardcore amicable forms, the festival has less to do with any of that and more to do with art. Every year at this event, a giant effigy of a man is built and set on fire.
The Ritual of The Summer Solstice
What started off as a small ritual in 1986, when a couple of men set up an 8 foot tall effigy on San Francisco’s Baker Beach is now one of the biggest gatherings on the planet. Lee Harvey and Jeffery James stocked up on lumber during the day of the year when the sun shines the longest or the summer solstice , 21st June in the northern hemisphere and 22nd December in the southern hemisphere. As the sun set, the two men set fire to what was to become the “Burning Man” and his small dog. As they conducted this ritual, a group of passer byes joined in and the small group grew close to around 40 people.
What happened next was nothing short of crazy. Burning an effigy is pretty normal behavior in this world of angry human beings, but a woman running upto the effigy and holding his hand while a man with his pants on his head sings a sound about fire is not what Lee and Jeffery expected to happen.
The Man and His Friends Grow
This reaction to the ritual instigated in the two a drive to continue this event over the years. Instantly, the two realized that what they had in front of them was a new form of expression with the ability to create a community around it. The act of ‘burning the man’ didn’t really mean anything though and saw its roots in the events that were organized by the sculptor Mary Grauberger, who was a friend of Lee Harvey’s girlfriend. The event was an annual art party held at Baker Beach and during those times sculpture burning marked the focus of such parties. When Grauberger did not continue the ritual, Harvey did decide to continue it, but since he wasn’t a sculptor his Man sculpture wasn’t really round. The event mentioned above then took place, and the duo set themselves to pursue the potential in the event.
The Rise of The Burning Man
The next coming of the Burning Man would happen a lot further from Baker beach. John Law and Kevin Evans picked a spot far out in the Nevada desert known as Black Rock. This was in the 1990s. For three years all the way through 1987 to 1989, the event was held at Baker beach with the man sprouting in height like a tree and the number of participants increasing. It was during these times that the initial founding principles of the Burning Man were envisioned and brought into practice. The community served as support to each other and instead of relying on a method of funding would share their resources to make their event happen.
An art society called the Cacophony society had its members join the event by the dozens. The real gateway event to the Burning Man of today would happen in the 1990s. When the 40 foot tall polygonal upside down triangular wooden object was erected, the Park police decided to serve the gathering a notice. The deal between the group and the Park authorities was finalized on the grounds that the group would be allowed to erect the statue but not burn it. The growing wildfires around the area would scare the authorities from allowing the group to conduct the pilgrimage to the Black Rock site and mark the start of the large scale ritual. For the next few years the ‘Man’ would not grow in size. Like a kid bullied by nature via stunting of growth, the man did not grow but the community grew.
The Founding Principles
After the year 2000, the man grew in size as if he was fueled by steroids. The event at Black Rock became a defining part of the under stream American pop culture with references to the event marked in the media with a bunch of crazy hippies dancing around the man semi naked. The Burning Man event is about far more than that. If you weren’t able to have picked it up previously then the first principle that appeared among the community was the act of well real community.
Even though the act may not have any symbolic value nor is some hidden occult ritual related to Sun worship, the act does carry in itself a heavy significance which amounts to closure of the very principles the founding members believed in. The quality of Lee Harvey that gave rise to the event was consistency. The man had embarked on pursuing a principle most of us lacked which amounted to making small steps in a large manner.
The second principle that is witnessed among the group is the act of self reliance and community. Small steps in aiding each other with resources and supplies created a bond between the group that received closure when the act was committed in the end.
The references in cartoons scattered across the world of TV which showed a bunch of semi naked people dancing like crazy to the sight of a giant burning statue is actually representative of an intense form of self expression. No one bothers the community up there in Black Rock and the requirement to work together has resulted in the formation of a company that manages the event.
The Coolest Part
So it becomes quite clear on how a small personal ritual merges with a highly experimental form of art and results in the creation of the most closely bonded community that commutes all the way into an empty spot in the desert and fills it with color and liveliness. If that does not impress you then this sure will. You definitely have assumed that such an event would cause a pile of junk so big that it would be visible from the eye of a satellite. Unfortunately that is not true. The whole ‘Leave no trace’ policy of the organizers encourages that no trash be left in the area and an analysis of how well the policy is followed displayed only a statistically non-significant amount collected from the site.
The tight bond between the community and the manner in how quickly an entire city is set up and dismantled not only represents a very successful stint in experimental art but also represents a massive social experiment on how people would gather around a cause even if the cause does not contain an underlying deeper meaning.
In the case of the Burning Man, like how the wood feeds the flames, the act fed the principles until the whole concept would mature into a major ritual with its own special group of followers. If anything, others can learn from the event and the community and find the Burning Man in their own lives that watches over them asking to be sprayed with fuel and set on fire.